The buzz around storytelling

There has been a good deal of recent debate on storytelling as a science communication tool, and some researchers are meeting it with scepticism. But it looks like this is changing. Researchers and communication professionals across different scientific fields are using storytelling more and more to communicate key messages and recommendations. Sectors such as healthcare are increasingly confident in using storytelling as a communication tool for diagnostics, therapeutics, and the education of patients, students, and practitioners.

The table derives from the journal article and shows some examples of how storytelling has been used in science.

New to using stories to communicate science?

You might wonder what the fuss is all about. Well, storytelling is as old as the spoken word, and we tell stories every day – they surround us. In fact, chemical connections are made in your brain while you listen to or read a story. Take the hormone dopamine, known for being the chemical that gives us a feeling of happiness or even euphoria when rushing through our neural pathways. When we’re told compelling stories, dopamine is released in the brain and helps us remember, in much greater detail, the content of the narrative. So stories can influence us in ways that help us remember, inspire us to act, and help to build shared understanding.

Science communication often takes the form of summaries of scientific outputs. These are often designed and structured in a similar way to scientific papers. Our article suggests instead a structured approach to using storytelling so that (i) the research is better informed by, and grounded in, the reality of local communities and stakeholders, and (ii) the results are presented in a way that engages and empowers the end users.

A two-part storytelling process – applied to evidence synthesis

Evidence synthesis is an effort to transparently collect, evaluate and condense large amounts of evidence. There is a range of different methodologies for synthesising evidence, and systematic review is one of them. And, while our article focuses on using storytelling in this field, we also hope the method can inspire the use of storytelling in other fields.

First, we suggest that storytelling techniques can be applied right at the beginning of the evidence synthesis, when the research questions and the research plan are formulated. We call these “contextual narratives”, and they would be developed by the synthesis team through interviews in collaboration with people who have a stake in or are influenced by the research. Contextual narratives can help researchers better understand people’s persepectives and prior knowledge. To help develop the narratives the research team might consult a storytelling professional or, depending on the context, give stakeholders storytelling templates to help them express their stories. We believe this approach can increase people’s engagement and interest in the study. By giving this space to the stakeholders the synthesis team can identify the agency of marginalised groups and individuals and it can help avoid misperceptions.

Secondly, we propose that the team create a “final story” that relates to the contextual narratives gathered at the start of the process. In contrast to the format of the final reports from the evidence synthesis, where information is plainly presented, an experience is generated among stakeholders by embedding and grounding the findings into a contextually relevant story. The aim is to make this story easier to digest for the stakeholders and other end-users. The final story can also build the base for a range of different communications products. You could for example adapt the story to a conference presentation or create a podcast or video.

Above figure from the journal article shows the conceptual framework for the integration of storytelling in systematic reviews and maps.

What now?

This is just the beginning for our research, and it has generated new and exciting questions that we plan to take forward. We do recognise that storytelling as a communications method for research needs more exploration. So we now want to apply the method, and we want to observe and analyse the use of compelling narratives to see what effect they have on people’s engagement. Can it lead to better-informed decisions because the decision-makers have gained a better understanding of the context and issues at hand? We’ll be exploring this in the months ahead.